More than a year after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the widespread adoption of distance education and made virtual classrooms the norm, the issue of cybersecurity has become a non-ignorable priority, especially for students who spend most of their time online. (See a related article, “Coronavirus Outbreak Forces Arab Countries to Consider Long-Ignored Online Education.”)
“Explaining the importance of online privacy for students and teachers alike and providing them with basic guidelines to follow on a daily basis while they are online is essential today, especially with the spread of distance education,” Ayman Salah, a communications and media technology expert, said in a phone call.
Different Risks and Basic Tips
In their online education experience, students and professors can face various risks, like cyberbullying, harassment, the danger of unintentionally publishing private information, and phishing, which is defined by cybersecurity professionals as the use of emails or messages to trick people into revealing personal information that can compromise their online financial accounts, or clicking on malicious links or attachments and unintentionally downloading malware.
Experts specialized in distance education and cybersecurity advise institutions, professors and students to follow some basic guidelines to ensure privacy, protect and monitor personal data, and prevent hacking online educational platforms, as well as some best practices for safety in online communications.
Salah, who is a lecturer at a number of Egyptian universities, believes that universities should support cybersecurity and privacy on their platforms and means of communication with their students by implementing plans to always update their programs, and purchase advanced versions of communication software rather than the free versions, as the advanced versions allow longer meetings and provide a larger space to upload data.
Salah also advises students and professors to take some necessary steps. First and foremost among them is to continuously update their computer or smartphone with the latest operating system. This is especially important for Windows users, because that system is more vulnerable to hacking, compared to Apple’s Mac operating system.
“It is necessary to use a complex password as a first step to protect against hacking of email, computer or mobile phones,” Salah said.
He also suggests installing Linux on computers, an open-source operating system that enjoys a relatively higher degree of protection compared to the Windows system, besides a periodic updating of antivirus programs, as the continuous use of the same program increases the risk of being exposed to cyberattacks.
Rethinking the Educational Environment
In turn, Narimane Hadj-Hamou, founder and chief executive of the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions (CLICKS), believes in the importance of rethinking the entire educational environment, including but not limited to developing the skills and competencies of faculty members; identifying and designing new pedagogical curricula suitable for distance learning; creating an advanced virtual-learning environment; and reconsidering the student overall, including the experience of extracurricular activities. (See a related article, “Pandemic Casts a Shadow on Extracurricular Activities for Egyptian Students.”)
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Hadj-Hamou also advises students to follow a number of tips to increase their interaction on online educational platforms while maintaining their cybersecurity. These tips include: acquiring technical skills, which include the ability to use programs like MS Office and their institution’s learning-management system, navigating the Internet, using social-media tools, and downloading software.
“Students should feel comfortable sharing their ideas in the virtual reality without fear or hesitation,” she said. “This cannot be done without awareness and good knowledge of the basics of cybersecurity.”
However, Mohamed Tita, an Egyptian scholar specialized in network and technical security, distinguishes between the duties and the digital security measures to be followed by educational institutions and those of individuals, whether they are professors or students.
For students and professors, Tita stresses the need to avoid clicking on anonymous links, the need to use an encryption system to open some suspicious websites, always using a screen lock to prevent others from accessing their device and viewing its contents, as well as the need to use a strong password to secure data and information.
On the other hand, Tita believes that educational institutions that manage digital infrastructure have greater responsibilities in ensuring safety. This requires them to take into consideration security while designing a technical strategy for the programs they use or platforms they launch for their students, along with developing a plan to deal with potential attacks. (See a related article, “Arab Universities Are Vulnerable to Cyberattacks, Experts Say.”)
As for instant-messaging applications that students and professors are advised to rely on in online education, Tita said that Signal is the most secure program, as it is an open-source free application that does not require an email for registration. Tita also advises using Jitsi for video and audio conferencing. He prefers it over Zoom because it is open source and was developed by a non-for-profit group, and because users can use it on their computers or mobile phones from a browser without the need to install any software.
10 Cybersecurity Tips
Here is a list of the top 10 tips for enhancing cybersecurity in a distance-education experience:
- Update all the operating systems and devices you use. The updates often include necessary security modifications.
- Install anti-virus software (network anti-virus and anti-malware software) on each device that will be used in the distance education process.
- Update software to the latest versions recommended by the manufacturer, as the presence of hardware and software that is no longer updatable puts the security of computer networks at risk.
- Continuously make backup copies of all your data.
- Establish a password policy. Cybersecurity experts recommend a policy of changing passwords every 90 days.
- Activate the two-step verification feature, which helps secure accounts against hacking.
- Create strong passwords: A strong password is a word consists of at least eight characters with a combination of numbers and letters, both uppercase and lowercase letters. However, personal information such as phone numbers or date of birth should not be included in the password.
- Cybersecurity experts advise sharing only non-sensitive information on social media.
- Never click on anonymous links you receive via email, as they are one of the most common ways to hack computers.
- Use a tool to protect the camera. Lots of people put duct tape on their laptop and smartphones’ cameras. Software that includes tools to prevent unauthorized access and operation of the camera can also be used.